Show Me Oz – As a gardener, cook and herbal enthusiast, I am always on the lookout for new and interesting plants. Because my garden is relatively small, every single plant that makes it through the front gate either has to look fantastic, taste great or have useful healing properties. One plant that fits all of my criteria is Nigella sativa – also known as the Blessed Seed.
Black Cumin (Nigella sativa) is an annual flowering plant belonging to the large and diverse Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae. This lovely little herb is known throughout the world for its seeds, which have played such an important role as a seasoning and medicine that at one time it was simply referred to as the “blessed seed”. Today, Nigella sativa has many common names including Black Seed, Onion Seed, Kalonji, Nutmeg Flower, Black Caraway, Roman Coriander, Fitch, Bitter Fitch, or just plain Fitches among many others.
Black cumin is an erect annual with highly dissected, fine, feathery foliage that somewhat resemble those of true fennel. N. sativa tends to have white flowers with five arrow-shaped petals streaked with blue. Each solitary flower sports yellow stamens and green three-part pistils that protrude prominently from the center. The long, slender, pointed seedpods contain tiny, blackish-brown angular seeds that have a pleasing smell of nutmeg mixed with oregano when rubbed between the hands or when heated.
While the popularity of Nigella seeds in Asia has continued unabated for thousands of years, here in North America most gardeners will only know it as a pretty flowering annual. Indeed, Nigella sativa is often confused with its close cousin, Nigella damascena (commonly referred to as fennel flower, love-in-a-mist, devil-in-a-bush, Damascena, and false cumin) because they look so much alike.
Although these two Nigellas look very similar and both produce fragrant seeds, tradition has it that only Nigella sativa should be used for food and medicine. While I have my own thoughts on this, I leave the explanation to the capable hands of Conrad Richter of Richter’s Herbs in this Q&A entitled, Safety of Nigella Damascena Seeds.
Growing and Harvesting
Black cumin is an easy-to-grow and prolific herb that prefers full sun and well-drained to dry soil. Direct-sow seed in late fall for spring germination or in early spring before the last frost. Allow seven to fourteen days for germination. Black cumin does not transplant well, so sow thickly and thin young seedlings to stand 8 to 12 in. (20 to 30 cm) apart. Allowing black cumin to self-sow ensures strong vigorous seedlings year after year. One thing to note about prolific self-sowing annuals such as black cumin is that when they find a place in the garden that is compatible, they will reproduce with amazing vigor year after year.
To collect seeds, cut the pods from the stem when they begin to turn brown but have not yet shattered. Place the pods in a paper bag until all the pods have ripened and the seeds are completely dry. Rub any unopened pods between the hands until seeds fall free and separate them from the pod chaff. Leaves can be used fresh or dried. Love-in-a-mist (N. damascena) is a popular ornamental flower, and although its seeds may also be used as black cumin, they are not as flavorful as those of N. sativa. Seeds are viable for up to three years.
The seeds of black cumin are greatly enhanced when dry roasted before being added to food. Highly underutilized in North America, black cumin is widely used in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine as a condiment and pepper substitute. It is used to season lamb, vegetables, bread, chutney, and garam masala. Black cumin can be used in any dish where cumin is called for and is a nice substitute for poppy seeds in cakes, curries, and bread. A special confection called halva is made by blending the roasted seeds with honey.
Nigella sativa has been used extensively as a medicinal and is commonly used to treat disorders of the digestive system such as flatulence, diarrhea, stomachache, colic, and dysentery as well as common colds, flu, headache, fever, sinus congestion, and coughs with phlegm.
Black cumin is also a general stimulant and its antihistamine-like properties are said to be beneficial in treating asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and allergies and the finely ground seed is used as a poultice on swellings, boils, and abscesses.
Black cumin is known to stimulate white blood cells, which defend against bacteria, fungi, parasites, foreign matter, and cancerous cells. In 1997 the International Immuno-Biology Research Laboratory reported that black cumin extracts “have remarkable promises for clinical use” in the treatment of breast, prostate and melanoma cancers.1
The seed oil promotes and regulates menstruation and stimulates lactation, however, women who are pregnant or who are expecting to become pregnant should avoid this herb, as it is known to be abortive in large doses.
There are a few other precautions when using N. sativa for medicinal purposes. Diabetics should consult a professional before consuming seed oil in medicinal doses. Do not use N. sativa if you are taking cytochrome P450 substrate drugs as Nigella may increase the risk of side effects of these drugs.
Nigellas are beautifully rugged annuals that will reseed themselves year after year once they have found a spot they like. To prevent reseeding, gather the seeds before they shatter and use them to season food in the kitchen or use for medicinal purposes. This multipurpose workhorse that will not only season your food and strengthen your immune system, but will soothe your soul with an abundance of gorgeous flowers all season long.
1. Medenica, R., J. Janssens, A. Tarasenko, G. Lazovic, W. Corbitt, D. Powell, D. Jocic, V. Mujovic. 1997. “Anti-angiogenic activity of Nigella sativa plant extract in cancer therapy.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (International Immuno-Biology Research Laboratory) 38:A1377.
Check the link below for more information on Nigella and cancer: https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/nigella-sativa
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Learn how to grow and use the world’s oldest, safest, and most medicinal herbs with this easy step-by-step guide! From starting seeds to preparing home remedies, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a treasured resource that you will turn to time and time again.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.